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3 Things to Watch in the March 24 Ecuador Elections

On March 24, Ecuadorians will vote in subnational elections that will set the stage for presidential and legislative elections in 2021. The 2019 results will determine whether Ecuador will remain a key American ally in a volatile hemisphere or return to its past.

From 2007 to 2017, former President Rafael Correa and his “Citizen’s Revolution” dominated political life in Ecuador.  He had been widely criticized for excessively concentrating power in the executive branch at the expense of the independence of the country’s National Assembly, judiciary and institutions. Current President Moreno, once Correa’s handpicked successor, has broken away from his former running mate since taking office in 2017.

Moreno has strengthened Ecuador’s bilateral relationship with the United States and engagement in multilateral dialogues, while moving away from former alliances like  the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR).  He has also championed democratic governance reforms within Ecuador, including seven voted in by the February 4, 2018 national referendum, where more than 65 percent of Ecuadorians voted to undo many of Correa’s undemocratic reforms. 

On March 24, Ecuadorians return to the polls. Here are three things about this week’s subnational elections to keep in mind.

The Effect Term Limits Will Have on the Election

One of the most impactful reforms of the 2018 referendum was the renewal and expansion of term limits for all elected officials in the country. In December 2015, former President Correa supported a series of electoral changes that included indefinite reelection of the president, sparking concerns that he would try to return in the 2021 elections.

The 2018 vote not only reversed indefinite reelection for the president, but also changed the political landscape for subnational elections by applying term limits to all political officials for the first time.  

Under Ecuadorian electoral law, political parties must get a minimum number of votes to maintain their legal status and participate in elections, providing an incentive to reuse the same tried and true candidates.  The new term limit restriction flips that script and favors the development of new candidates for parties to stay in power.  

This could affect the election in two ways.

In one scenario, parties invest more in local leadership, creating a more diverse array of constantly changing figures who can compete for a variety of elected offices at all levels across the country.

In the second scenario, evident in the current elections, political parties could choose “popular” but not necessarily well-prepared candidates, like famous local athletes or tv personalities.

Election of the CPCCS

The 2008 Correa-era constitution created five branches of government. The traditional three - Executive, Legislative and Judicial – and two new branches: Electoral (Consejo Nacional Electoral – CNE, National Electoral Council) and Citizen’s Participation (Consejo de Participación Ciudadana y Control Social – CPCCS, Citizen Participation and Social Control Council).

The then-appointed CPCCS was criticized for begin stacked with Correa supporters and for its lack of independence from the Executive branch in its core duty of appointing key oversight authorities such as the Attorney General, Comptroller, and a wide variety of electoral and judicial officials.

The March 24 vote will be the first time CPCCS members will be elected by popular vote. This change demonstrates the current government’s apparent political will for transparency and strengthening the validity of the CPCCS as an institution.

However, the electoral mechanics for the CPCCS are complex and poorly understood for this election. Candidates for the seven CPCCS seats are divided into three ballots, with candidates to represent women (three), men (three) and ethnic minorities and migrants (one). Both candidates and the public have questioned this arrangement, but the CNE believes this design will better guarantee diverse representation. The CNE took over the distribution of CPCCS campaign media on TV and radio in an effort to maintain the non-partisan nature of these positions, prohibiting them from campaigning directly. Still, Citizens report they don´t know about these candidates or their positions, and don’t understand the three-ballot system that will be used to elect them.

Confusion and frustration with the CPCCS election, and criticism that the body has undue influence over other branches of government by design, has led some politicians and opinion leaders to encourage citizens to use their mandatory vote to submit intentionally spoiled ballots to express their displeasure with the CPCCS and push for complete dissolution of the body (a move that would require a new constitution or constitutional amendment).

How voters respond in the upcoming election will likely dictate the perceived legitimacy of the new CPCCS or potentially renewed support to abolish it altogether.  

The Consejo Nacional Electoral – CNE, National Electoral Council – is a new executive body tasked with overseeing the upcoming March 24 subnational elections.

Changing party landscape

A record 80,281 candidates will compete for local, provincial, cantonal and parochial positions.  With over 279 political parties and movements registered for the subnational elections, Ecuador now has the largest number of registered political organizations in South America—a 130.5 percent increase since the 2014 elections.

For a decade, Correa’s AP held monolithic influence over the political sphere in Ecuador, where only a fractured collection of opposition parties was competitive in local elections. The recent “explosion” of registered parties and candidates follows the split of Alianza País (AP) between Moreno supporters and a new party loyal to Correa (RC – Revolución Ciudadana, or Citizen’s Revolution).

A majority of political organizations in Ecuador (58 percent) are unaligned with national parties, but represent municipal, cantonal or provincial interests. While the proliferation of new parties may express a renewed enthusiasm for democratic participation, it may also lead to even more fractured institutions, where complex coalitions, inexperienced and underprepared politicians or a lack of strong consensuses will make it difficult to govern. While the 2019 subnational elections will naturally trend toward more locally-focused political movements, this is a trend of a decline in traditional parties at the national level could be solidified in the 2021 elections.

Final Thoughts

The last two years have led to positive changes in Ecuador’s political environment, reviving the country’s democratic values and institutions. The March 24, 2019 elections represent an important benchmark for measuring these changes, including the results of the 2018 referendum reforms as they are put into practice.

The new political laws and environment could favor more inclusive political representation through more diverse parties and candidates, continuing to move away from a system heavily dominated by one party. Institutions once maligned for serving as de facto extensions of presidential power, like the CPCCS, could gain new legitimacy and validity as part of a robust democratic government structure.

However, these changes could also result in challenges to effective governance, such as underprepared and inexperienced candidates and officials, fragile coalitions or strengthened calls for major constitutional reforms.

These elections will set the tone for the next two years leading up to the 2021 national elections and will likely expose new challenges and opportunities for Ecuador’s continued democratic and institutional restoration.